Chapter Ten - The Death of a Beast
Di'kana's memories were scattered things after she'd pounced upon Skjor. Things lost to the horrific agony of crunching bones and engorging muscles, her recollection was fuzzy at best, remembering snippets of individual senses. The sight of the stone tunnel that led out of Whiterun, the sharp copper taste of blood in her maw, the incredible smell of the mountain air through her new nose, the feeling of her pounding heart as she ran beneath the moon, the sound of howling with her fellow wolves as they streaked across the wilderness towards a destination of some kind. It painted a scene, frantic and liberating all at the same time. She'd felt so out of control, and yet, so elated for being so. Any part of her that might have been afraid, might have expressed terror at not being able to inhibit herself in the urge to kick off the ground and tare into the turf in a long and powerful gait, was lost beneath the bliss of the earth between her claws and the rush of wind in her face.
She remembered not being alone. Aela had been just behind her, nipping at her heels, and Skjor had been before her, leading her in her blind rage to rip him to pieces.
How strange it had felt to be so incredibly overjoyed and yet so very full of loathing, all at the same time. Was she to laugh or scream?
Neither, it seemed. She knew she'd roared through her new snout, a monstrous sound to go with monstrous teeth... and one that left her throat raw.
And that was when she realized it. When she realized she was no longer that creature, she was swallowing, feeling her neck, sitting among grasses with cold dew that clung to each blade. She was naked, seated upon the chilled earth, licking the inside of her mouth as if something were stuck to the roof of it while the very back of her tongue felt as if it were torn open and bleeding. Her fur fluffed up, arms shifting to hold herself and protect from the cold, blinking blearily and trying to get her bearings.
Wherever she was, it was far from Whiterun. Somewhere on a slope, mountain peaks looming and trees standing in the few places they could root at this incline. In the distance, she could hear something-- startled noises and clattering of weapons. Far from here, a battle was happening, voices crying out either in eagerness to engage or in fear of death.
Sniffing made her realize she still was not alone. Skjor's trail continued on, and Aela was near-by. Her scent nearly blended with the wilds around them, but there was also a certain nuttiness to it, like roasted hazelnuts-- delightful and warm... much like the woman herself, if one earned it. Her mouth opened briefly, to call out, but a thick wheeze escaped her instead-- her tongue had forgotten how to form words, and the dryness of her mouth did not assist at all with her desire to find her shield sister. Coughing, swallowing, shaking her head, she tried to settle back into her skin... but again, her fur ruffled and a shudder passed through her. This was more than cold, more than Skyrim's customary chill penetrating through thin Khajiit fur and skin. The cold was in her core, a freezing terror of exhaustion that sat heavy in her gut. It was a feeling that made her feel like she'd somehow swallowed a massive chunk of ice, and it made her belly roil in discomfort. Beyond that, she felt as if her body did not fit, like clothes stitched too tight. Shivering, she could not stretch, and the irritation of it all made her growl.
“Ah, there you are... I was worried you were not going to come back.”
Her head turned, and ears perked up. Di'kana's wide blue eyes addressed Aela in the darkness-- human Aela. Not the wolf, not the hulking creature Skjor had cut to give Di'kana the blood, but the red-headed huntress who wore her unique leathers with pride and spoke softly in the night. Within her arms, a leather bundle was carried-- clothes and armor Di'kana realized as Aela bent to lay it on the ground and open it. Eagerly, Di'kana's hands fell upon the contents to begin dressing herself against the chill wind that blew up the mountain slope.
Finally, Di'kana managed to speak-- a single word that still carried the hate that had driven her actions since her return to Jorrvaskr.
“You hurt him. Badly.” Aela noted. “... was that your plan? … did... did you mean to kill him?”
“Did you not?” Di'kana spat, rough tunic slipped over her body, trousers pulled up her legs, a layer of leather applied before metal pieces of armor could be added atop that. Piece by piece, she was becoming a warrior again. “He hurt Farkas, this one hurt him. You, too, vowed revenge if this one remembers. Has that desire ebbed?”
“No, but...” Aela paused. She remembered the feeling, how she'd raged when she saw what Skjor had done to Farkas, but when it came to Skjor dying-- something in her core refused, and hesitated. There was a fear associated with the idea of trying to unseat him, though she could not possibly describe how it held itself so deeply within her that it could make her question what the correct course of action was in this moment. Skjor had used silver upon one of their own, badly hurt Farkas, threatened and manipulated multiple members of the companions; he deserved death... and yet, she could only comprehend terror at the idea of carrying it out, or the thought of Di'kana trying to do so. He'd been part of Aela's life for so long, the thought of him being gone, despite all that he'd done, was almost more terrifying than his machinations. “... I don't know if this is my hunt, Kitten. Skjor should be punished, but the Silver Hand have taken from us too-- and Kodlack has no plans to fight them. I... I don't know if I can let you kill him.”
“Do you make no plans? Does Skjor lack replacement from within our ranks? Kodlack is old, and prepares for his own end-- new leadership is eminent, and it need not come with such abuse.”
Vicious words, but no less true. Aela still found herself hesitant.
“Did he... continue on?” Di'kana asked, strapping on her breastplate, assembling herself methodically despite the way she continued to shiver-- even when covered.
“Yes. He's begun the attack without us-- Skjor has never been particularly patient, and the wolf is less so.”
“Then the goals are met. He is wounded, yet he wages war. If he is to die now, it is of his own doing.”
“What?” Aela snapped, losing hesitation and turning to anger. Her body tensed, and fists clenched as Di'kana regained her feet, addressing her legs and boots with the last pieces of armor that Aela had carried in the bundle. “You'd- You'd leave him to be killed by these butchers?”
“Dead is dead, and he entered of his own will.” Di'kana responded coolly, ears swept back, a faint growl clinging upon her words. “You would suffer Farkas to let him return to Jorrvaskr? If he does not die here, you know Vilkas will finish him for his brother's protection and honor. Kodlak likely knows now as well. If not death, Skjor will be exiled in disgrace-- a disgrace he will not take kindly, if this one has come to understand him at all.”
“Yes, but Vilkas would at least engage him in a duel, kill him with honor! Put him down properly, as a warrior, as a hunter! I'm angry too, but Skjor doesn't deserve death here.”
There was a plea in Aela's passionate and enraged voice-- a request from her heart that was as desperate as Di'kana's heart was hateful.
“... you desire this one help you rescue him from himself? Knowing full well he will die upon Vilkas's sword even if we do save him here?”
“Vilkas has honor. These people do not.” Aela insisted, nodding eagerly. “Please, sister-- I have gone along with your plan, now please assist me with mine. The Silver Hand have a fort just up this slope; we will slaughter them. All of them. Give them your hate, and save the last scraps of Skjor for Vilkas.”
It felt like a delay of the inevitable, as well as a subversion of what she'd set out to do... but Aela's plea did not fall upon deaf ears. Finally suited up, Di'kana stood straight and lifted the final piece of armor, a helm, to the top of her head. With it on, she could at least mildly ignore the tired and cold core of her body... though she was certain it was slowly warming-- as if the exhaustion of her beast were waning. Perchance the cold was her inability to change after returning to herself... she could ask about it another time. In this moment, there were other things to be concerned with.
“... I will need a weapon.” Di'kana noted, without enthusiasm. There had not been one in the bundle.
Relief flooded Aela, and made her hands unclench. “I am certain we can liberate one easily enough.”
Entry into the fort left Di'kana reluctantly agreeing with Aela's sentiment; no one deserved to die here. The first thing to make her recoil were the spikes arranged at the entry-- decorated with the heads of werewolves, driven through and left to rot, maggots squirming in the eyes. Entrance in brought relief from the cold, but only a greater smell of fear, carrion, and cruelty. Drawing further in, down stone steps and past a protective gate, there were a number of dead-- both members of the Silver Hand, mauled and bloody, and their victims. In rooms meant for butchery, little corrals off of a main meeting room with food and fire, the dead bodies of werewolves hung by their throats. Hooks were driven through them from beneath the jaw, and they were strung up to be gutted. The long lines of a skinning knife suggested that the fur was to be harvested. These corpses, however, were not alone. The meeting room had at least a dozen dead men within it, ripped by talon and teeth... and more than one of them wore the pelts of their victims. Without a doubt, Skjor had been there; the freshly dead were proof.
Di'kana wished death upon Skjor, but not the death of a beast. He was still a man in her eyes-- depraved and cruel, but still a man. That decided, it gave Di'kana a horrible feeling when, only a few rooms into the fort, she and Aela began to meet resistance. Mauled corpses no longer appeared, but living guards who stood watch with the fear and caution that accompanied a recently survived attack. Skjor was nowhere to be seen, but both she and Aela could smell that he'd been there... and that he'd bled.
Quiet hand motions indicated a plan of attack; Di'kana would drive the assault, while Aela took her bow to the shadows and ensured the incoming force would not overwhelm her shield sister. The setting of the battle was carefully chosen; the place where they would announce themselves to the men within the stone fortress. There were hallways, narrow, too narrow to pass more than two abreast, throughout the underground sprawl that they'd found themselves in. These hallways met at junctions that were mildly wider. With sniffs at the air, Aela quickly worked out where their greatest opposition was, and stole ahead on silent steps. Once assured that she was in position, Di'kana let out a challenging cry that quickly gained attention-- but with the bottleneck, her enemies could not face her more than one at a time if they still wanted to swing their swords. Meanwhile she, in the junction, had the room to swing a stolen silver ax down upon them... all as Aela picked off others with her bow.
Between the pair of them, the fight did not last long, neither of them ever once bitten by the silver blades their enemies wielded.
Speed was key, a sense of fearful haste taking over both women as they shared a knowing look. Beyond this force, Skjor may have been taken captive... or he could very well already be dead.
“Hurry.” Aela urged.
She need not say it. Continuing on past the dead force led to a room that was most certainly a true mess hall; tables laden with food and drink, as well as a wooden bar from which a barkeep had no doubt watched over the men and women they'd just slain. The room was empty, now, the sole sign of life being a massive fire that burned in a built-out corner hearth. It crackled on, heedless that its tenders were gone and that it, too, would soon be left as a lifeless pile of ash and dust. Di'kana considered that this whole place could be brought down by feeding kegs of spirit into the flame and letting the fire rise to rage-- but doing so would ensure all who remained would be consumed, Skjor included. Aela would not accept that. They would march on, and face what was beyond; another long hall, this time leading to what was clearly the prison of the fortress. Cell after cell, cold and damp, with a single guard left at the far end of the room to watch over the block. Said guard looked unsure of his post, peering into the gloom of the darkened prison. Doubtless he'd heard the commotion from the mess hall, but had maintained his post here-- one of his peering eyes was where Aela's arrow find its mark. The shaft appeared silently from the dark, and the man was dead before he could cry out in surprise, slumping in his chair.
The way clear, they moved to cross the prison block. Di'kana leading with her ax, she peered into the darkened cells when she heard guttural growling-- to realize there were other werewolves here. Living werewolves, locked into tiny cells in which there was barely room to piss, lest one wished to sit in it. She stopped, abruptly, staring at a creature that stared back at her... but while it's eyes burned, she saw no intelligence in it.
“Feral.” Aela noted. “... see how it stares at you? These ones don't remember what it is they were before. If you were to free one, it would happily kill you.”
“Would you leave it trapped, knowing that you could occupy such a small cage?” Di'kana quested quietly, staring at the animal before her. When Khajiit mothers told frightening stories to kittens, they always included cages. The idea of captivity was one that horrified all of her people to the bone, a fundamental fear that went back into the very essence of her cultural memory. To see another, even robbed of rational thought, kept so captive... it made her feel sick.
“Di'kana, we don't have time to try and free them. They might kill us, and Skjor--”
“Not free them.” Di'kana responded stiffly. “... we have time for mercy, do we not?”
It took a moment, but Aela realized what was being suggested. She did not waver; it was the same mercy she'd give to a bear with its leg caught in a trap. To release it was to promise a slow, painful death as it failed to survive. Similar could be said of these ferals, left trapped in their beastly form-- there was no place in the world meant for them. Running free, the Companions themselves would have the unhappy task of putting them down before they killed innocents in their insatiable blood-lust.
“... very well.”
The task was a short one. Aela's draw was strong, and each arrow struck between the bars of each cell, into each wolf, right between the eyes. To each, Aela spoke a quiet well-wish; that they might meet again for the eternal hunt.
Di'kana, behind her, wished them peace and freedom.
From the prison block, the journey was short. Another hall, a sleeping guard who was given no chance to wake, a sharp turn and a final door. Beyond, the reek of blood and butchery-- Aela lifted a hand and called for them to hold a moment.
“The master of this fort is known as the Skinner. I assume you can understand why?”
Di'kana nodded. She'd seen and smelled more than enough to comprehend the cruelty that occurred here, and why Aela didn't want Skjor to die here... yet, dread grew in her, as she was certain the worst had already occurred. Beyond the door, she heard the steady beat of a smith's hammer. She heard no shouting, no commotion, nothing that suggested a prisoner was being kept who had any fight left in them. If Skjor was beyond this door, he was either dead or unconscious. Considering how the Silver Hand treated werewolves, she doubted they'd take the chance in not killing him right away.... they certainly had not intended to take Farkas alive, the time she and he had encountered them during her proving, all those weeks ago.
Inside her, the cold had long been driven off. White-hot anger had turned her restless, and pricked at her skin in a way that made her feel as if her body might burst open the way an old shirt would at the seams. This heat, this rage-- she could guess what it was. It was the wolf, inside her now, with a will of its own... and its will was to hunt. To tare and destroy for the offense given to the pack. Despite the beast being self-willed, its rage felt too familiar; she knew this irrational need from her own anger, her own times of irrational action.
She knew, much like her own rage, that such anger could not be tamed... only re-directed.
“Let us do this.” She told Aela.
A short nod was shared, and Di'kana stood up. A heavy boot crashed against the door, and the pair of shield sisters rushed in to meet whatever was beyond.
~Fin Part Two